Former Nevada U.S. senator’s legacy under debate
The legacy of one of Nevada’s early leaders is under fire in one of the more upscale neighborhoods of the nation’s capital.
February 23, 2015 - 7:52 am
WASHINGTON — The legacy of one of Nevada’s early leaders is under fire in one of the more upscale neighborhoods of the nation’s capital.
A group of residents in Chevy Chase is pushing to rename a landmark fountain that was dedicated decades ago to U.S. Sen. Francis G. Newlands, who developed the community from substantial land holdings he acquired as a real estate speculator at the turn of the 20th century.
Newlands, a Democrat, served in the U.S. House from 1893 until 1903 and in the Senate from 1903 until he died in 1917. A nationally prominent member of the Progressive movement, he was lauded as a champion of conservation, worker rights, suffrage, regulating corporations and busting monopoly trusts, according to William D. Rowley, a University of Nevada, Reno history professor who published a Newlands biography in 1996.
By those measures, Newlands today would probably be considered a liberal Democrat.
But the attorney, who moved from San Francisco to Reno in 1888 and into Congress five years later, also was a supremacist who advocated more democracy but only for white people. That is what has propelled the campaign to distance Chevy Chase from its founder.
Newlands was outspoken in his racial views, writing that blacks were an “inferior race” unsuited for governance and that their education should focus on manual rather than intellectual skills.
At the 1912 Democratic presidential convention in Baltimore, Newlands called for a “white plank” in the party platform that would have restricted immigration and repealed the 15th Amendment granting black men the right to vote.
The Newlands fountain sits in a small park within a traffic circle that straddles the boundary of Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Newlands envisioned Chevy Chase, unincorporated farmland five miles beyond Washington at the turn of the century, as an exclusive “streetcar suburb.” Today it is an area of leafy streets and million-dollar homes.
TIME TO MOVE ON?
“There’s this monument to him, and it just strikes me that it’s time to move on,” said Gary Thompson, an attorney who lives in Chevy Chase on the Washington side.
“Maybe we can do better, maybe we can have a different monument in our circle, in our neighborhood where we live, that might be more uplifting or an inspiration to our neighborhood.”
Thompson in December presented a resolution to fellow members of the Chevy Chase Advisory Neighborhood Commission, one of the local boards within the District of Columbia that advances recommendations to the City Council.
Chevy Chase “acknowledges the historic role played by Senator Newlands as the lead developer of Chevy Chase, but …we long ago progressed beyond his segregationist vision for our neighborhood,” it reads in part.
“The primary purpose of this resolution is to create a positive opportunity to name the fountain for a person that our current community (and the area and nation as a whole) respects and honors, leaving Senator Newlands to the annals of history.”
The resolution suggests renaming the fountain for abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The advisory commission tabled the resolution by a 4-2 vote, after members said they wanted to gather more input from the community before deciding whether to hold a public hearing.
Thompson’s term on the commission has expired and the resolution has not been scheduled for further action. But it has provoked further debate.
In January, seven descendants of Newlands wrote to the advisory commission in his defense.
“We reject and heartily disagree with his sentiments on race,” they said. “However, like many other imperfect but important historical figures of his time, he should be evaluated fairly, factually and on the basis of his accomplishments and his faults.”
Newlands was perhaps best known for the 1902 Reclamation Act, which authorized federal irrigation projects that dammed rivers and distributed precious water to the arid West.
A year later in Nevada, work began on what came to be known as the Newlands Project. It diverted irrigation water from the Truckee and Carson rivers to fuel the farming and ranching economy of Western Nevada.
Newlands served on the Senate subcommittee that investigated the 1912 sinking of the Titanic.
He also wrote the Newlands Resolution, which made Hawaii a U.S. territory.
PAST AND MODERN STANDARDS
By modern standards — and even some back then — Newlands’ views on race were striking. But overall at the time, perhaps not so much, according to Rowley.
“He was a bit more expressive, I guess you could say, in his racial views,” Rowley said. “I should say they were not unlike a lot of Democrats at that time and Republicans, or white people, at that time.”
“But he did take it to a bit of an extreme when he advocated the repeal of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution,” Rowleysaid. “He was kind of laughed out of the scene.”
“He saw this as a national solution to the ‘race problem,’ eliminating blacks from the political process,” Rowley said. “It was a bit of extreme even at the time. But a lot of people secretly held those ideas, and President Wilson was not totally offended with that.”
Newlands “had a vision for America, and he would be very surprised at the way it turned out in the late 20th century in terms of integration of the races and the development of a multiethnic and multiracial nationality here,” Rowley said.
The Chevy Chase Circle fountain — a nod to Newlands’ influence on federal water policy — was funded and built by his widow and dedicated to him in the mid-1930s. It was refurbished in the 1990s
Newlands in 1890 formed the Chevy Chase Land Company, which developed 1,700 acres he had acquired over time throughout much of northwest Washington. One of its shareholders was a fellow Nevadan, Sen. William Stewart. The firm remains a prominent developer and property manager in the capital region.
If Chevy Chase wants Newlands’ name erased, it would have to persuade the D.C. City Council to pass a similar resolution directing the D.C. Historic Preservation Office to remove it from the National Registry of Historic Places.
Because the fountain is on land controlled by the National Park Service, the city then would need to lobby the agency to remove the weathered plaque to Newlands that states: “His statesmanship held true regard for the interests of all men.”
Some argue Congress would have to get involved. In short, it could get complicated.
Thompson argues it was not as if Newlands was an average citizen harboring racist views.
“We’re talking about a really powerful U.S. senator who used the powers of his office… to try to do damage both politically and economically to a whole race of people,” he said. “He was not a product of the times. He created the times.”
Thompson said defenders of Newlands make a fair point in criticizing efforts to apply the values of today retroactive to earlier history. If the Nevadan’s name is stripped from a landmark a century after the fact, what about the Founding Fathers who were slave owners?
Or Wilson, a Newlands contemporary and fellow Progressive, who when he became president in 1913 authorized his Cabinet to reverse racial integration in the civil service? Who once told black professionals in a meeting that “segregation is not a humiliation but a benefit,” according to William Keylor, a history professor at Boston University.
“I struggle with that,” Thompson said. “If you raise the question with this monument, you could raise the question with any monument.
“But it’s not like this is a presidential commission,” he said. “It’s not a court. It’s a monument in our neighborhood. If we want to change it maybe we can change it. What happens to other monuments in other neighborhoods I don’t know. That’s other debates for other people to have. I don’t think it’s wrong to at least ask the question.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.